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Glaciers in the European Alps pose a scientific mystery. Now, they started melting rapidly back in the 1860s, and in the span of about 50 years, some of the biggest glaciers retreated more than half a mile. Nobody could explain why. Now, a new study suggests the glaciers melted because they were covered with soot from the Industrial Revolution. NPR's Richard Harris reports.
RICHARD HARRIS, BYLINE: Scientists trying to understand Europe's climate for the past several hundred years have turned to the glaciers in the Alps, since they preserve some of the history of temperature and precipitation during that time. Tom Painter from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory says if you look back at the 1600s and 1700s, the glaciers were quite big and stable. That observation reflects that Europe was in a prolonged cold spell known as the Little Ice Age.
TOM PAINTER: And then around 1860, 1865, they all started to retreat to lengths that they had not had in the previous few hundred years.
HARRIS: To some historians, that retreat marks the end of the Little Ice Age. But there's a problem: Europe did not actually heat up until the 1910s or 1920s. In fact, if you go just by air temperature and precipitation, the glaciers should have advanced, not retreated. So, why would the glaciers have started to melt?
PAINTER: It dawned on me, God, well, industrialization was kicking off then and we have these visions from Charles Dickens and others of that time, the mid-1800s, of a huge amount of soot being pumped out into the atmosphere, not just in England but also in France and Germany and Italy.
HARRIS: Painter's previous research has shown that dust blowing onto the Rocky Mountains is making the snow melt much faster there because dark snow absorbs a lot more sunlight. Of course, he couldn't sample ice from the Alps that had already melted away, but he found a record of soot from ice samples higher up in the mountains. He and his colleagues argue in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences that the glaciers didn't simply melt away because the Little Ice Age petered out.
PAINTER: What this tells us then is that, no, in fact, there was a human influence very likely reaching back all the way to what we had considered to be this natural cycling.
HARRIS: Other scientists, puzzling over the timing of this glacial melt, said Painter's idea makes a lot of sense, even though it's not an ironclad case. Rihanna Hyson is in a lab at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, which has been studying the alpine melt for many years.
RIHANNA HYSON: We have, for example, an automatic weather station on a glacier in Switzerland. And what we measure there is that every year the surface is darker - everything from dust from the surroundings - and we see that that really affects the melt there.
HARRIS: The soot idea could also explain why the glaciers in the Alps started to melt decades before glaciers upwind from Europe did. Gifford Miller at the University of Colorado says industrial pollution from Europe wasn't blowing into Iceland or Norway, which remained cold and frosty.
GIFFORD MILLER: Maybe it gave the Alpine folks in Switzerland and the Italian Alps a bit of a headstart in cultivating those high lands again.
HARRIS: Maybe why we have Swiss milk chocolate instead of Norwegian milk chocolate.
MILLER: Could be.
HARRIS: Actually, it turns that the Swiss did invent milk chocolate a decade or two after the glaciers started to give way to more pasture land. So, it's not an entirely nutty idea. But Miller sees a much bigger lesson from understanding how soot and dust can bring about quick changes to the world's glaciers.
MILLER: Things that impact the climate system in abrupt ways are the things that people should be concerned about for the future.
HARRIS: And, as the story of the Alps suggests, dark particles can melt the world's glaciers much more rapidly than gradual changes in the Earth's temperature can. Richard Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.